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Road kill in Serengeti, Tanzania

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Making human migration easier would be catastrophic for the wildlife that makes the Serengeti ecosystem possible

Imagine. You are lying in the grass in the east African savannah, watching wildebeest fording a shallow river. You can hear the funny grunting noises they make, and as they pass by, you can feel the impact of their hooves on the ground and smell their rich animal smell. You see their kicking heels, their beautiful sleek bodies. Then you look up, and you realise that the herd stretches as far as you can see, that the plain is dark with wildebeest. If you were to wait for them all to pass, you would be there for days. The sight is magnificent, primal and profoundly moving. It is the wildebeest migration.

Every year, more than a million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles, move through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem of Tanzania and Kenya, following the rains. In the course of a year, an individual wildebeest may cover as much as 2, 100 kilometers. It is the last great migration on Earth.

But for how much longer? A large part of the migration takes place within the vast Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and there are reports that the Tanzanian government is preparing to build a major road through the northern part of the park: through a designated wilderness area, through the migration route.

Roads are catastrophic for wildlife. The experiment has been done again and again all over the world. Among the problems: roads allow the easy spread of invasive plant species, as car tyres often carry their seeds. Highways also allow the rapid spread of animal diseases, and lead to an increase in poaching, building and other human activities.

But by far the biggest problem is that roads fragment habitats and disrupt animal movements. Many animals are reluctant to cross roads, even those with little traffic. And when there is a lot of traffic, the lives of people and animals are both at risk.

The usual solution is to fence the road to protect the cars. Doing this here would likely end the migration, cause the collapse of the wildebeest population - and destroy the Serengeti as we know it. The reason is that the lands to the north of the proposed road remain wet when the lands to the south have become dry. Unable to reach the water, tens of thousands of animals would die of hunger and thirst;many would become tangled in the fence. Building the road with animal tunnels or overpasses, as has been done in Canada and other countries, would be expensive and impractical;moreover, it probably would not work, as wildebeest are sensitive to disturbance. They already avoid areas frequented by poachers, and are alarmed by cars.

And if the migration stopped, the Serengeti would cease to be the Serengeti, for the wildebeest define the ecosystem and drive its dynamics. The migration is the reason the wildebeest are so numerous: it allows them to transcend the limitations imposed by local supplies of food, water and predators. And in their travels, the animals spread nutrients throughout the system. They fertilise plants with their urine and dung, and trample the soil. By doing so, they help to maintain a diverse array of plants, insects and birds, and are themselves food for large numbers of lions and hyenas.

Wildebeest also help maintain large numbers of humans. Tourism accounts for 8 per cent of Tanzania's gross domestic product and for more than 600, 000 jobs. If the migration stopped, tourism would decline. After all, there would be much less to see.

Good roads are, of course, an important part of economic development. They connect isolated communities, and allow for the trucking of commodities between inland areas and port cities. One of the challenges of conservation is balancing the needs of humans today with protecting the resources of tomorrow.

But the peculiar thing about this road is that it is not a case of animals versus people. There is an alternative - a road to the south of the park that would connect five times more people, and cost less to build. It would also be easier, since the landscape there is flatter;and it would not affect the animal migrations. And the northern road has been vigourously rejected on environmental grounds before.

Even more peculiar: up to now, the government of Tanzania has had an outstanding record of conservation. Around a quarter of the country's area is managed with a view to preserving wildlife, and at 50, 000 square kilometers the Selous Game Reserve is the largest protected area in Africa. Tanzania boasts seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which four are nature reserves - including the Serengeti National Park.

Moreover, the president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, is known for his interest in nature. When six black rhinos arrived in the Serengeti in May - they were flown in from South Africa as part of a rhino relocation programme - the president himself was there to meet them, and he has often spoken of the importance of the parks to Tanzania. Indeed, he sometimes quotes Tanzania's first president, Julius Nyerere: "The survival of our wildlife is a matter of grave concern to all of us in Africa. These wild creatures amid the wild places they inhabit are not only important as a resource of wonder and inspiration but are an integral part of our natural resources and our future livelihood and wellbeing. In accepting the trusteeship of our wildlife we solemnly declare that we will do everything in our power to make sure that our children's grand-children will be able to enjoy this rich and precious heritage. "

It is not clear why the Serengeti road is being considered : I was unable to reach anyone in the Tanzanian government who would comment. But what is clear is that one of the most marvelous and awe-inspiring sights on the planet might soon vanish, killed by a road. NYT NEWS SERVICE

LOST HIGHWAY


The best known of all game reserves, the Serengeti is contiguous with Kenya's Masai Mara, yet this huge area in Tanzania is six times the size. It hosts the longest overland migration route in the world - the 2, 100-km odyssey to Masai Mara undertaken by herds of wildebeest and zebras. It is also one of the ten natural travel wonders of the world

The road between the Tanzanian cities of Arusha and Musoma on Lake Victoria would cut across the heart of the Serengeti, blocking the migration route, threatening the wildlife with high-speed traffic and providing easy access to poachers. Heavy construction traffic, pollution, noise, work gangs would also disrupt the ecosystem

The wildebeest migrate to find better grazing areas. If the herds cannot follow the rains, hundreds of thousands of these animals would perish. If the wildebeest numbers are massively reduced, the numbers of big cats and other predators will crash due to lack of prey

The rationale behind building the highway is that it would bring in more tourists, making human migration through the region more swift. Critics however point out that the money would only be temporary if the road eliminates the wildlife

The highway would also have dire consequences for local communities that may support the project because of its promise of a better life. In reality, the road would only serve to minimize local control over flow of tourism and traffic. The road would prevent the animals from reaching the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, affecting the environment in the neighbouring country

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